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How to serve
an Ember Day Low Mass

Louis J. Tofari


The additional readings of an Ember Day tend to confuse Low Mass altar servers as they try to determine which lesson is the Epistle, and thereby afterwards, when to stand and move the altar missal for the Gospel.


However, if armed with some easy cues the acolytes can be assured of what to do and when during an Ember Day Mass. Before providing these tips though, we should have a better understanding of what the Ember Days are and so how and why their Masses differ from a typical Low Mass (see serving notes here).

In Latin the Ember Days are known as “Quatuor Tempora”, that is the “four times” (or seasons) of the year, and refer to the ancient Roman harvesting and planting times.

But the English term of "Ember" is derived from the Middle English "Ymber Dayes" itself from the even older Anglo-Saxon "Ymbrendagas", which is the plural of "Ymbrendæg", a recurring day (or to break this word down: "ymbe" meaning "a circuit", "ryne," a running, and "dæg" a day). Thus the liturgical term "Ember Days' is highly significant in the English language.

There are four Ember Weeks during the liturgical year which are in conjunction with the four annual seasons:

  1. Advent (Winter) [Read more about these Ember Days]

  2. Lent (Spring)

  3. Pentecost Octave (Summer)

  4. September (Fall)

VIDEO TALK: Louis Tofari on the Ember Days (2 hours of explanation)

During an Ember Week, there are three Ember Days: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. From the earliest days of the Church, these days were observed as penitential days. In older times these Ember Days were also a preparation for conferring holy orders (such as the priesthood), and these ceremonies would be held as a vigil, starting on the night of Ember Saturday and ending on the early morning of Sunday (like on the Easter Vigil).


The main reason why serving Mass on an Ember Day is somewhat different from a usual Low Mass is due to the additional readings that occur before the Epistle and Gospel. These added readings are a remnant of the more ancient form of the Roman Mass, which featured a Lesson just before the Epistle,[1] so three readings total during the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Today there is still a third reading in the Mass, but this is the Last Gospel, and it is part of the concluding rites.


Also between the extra readings of Ember Days are additional collects and chanted propers, either Graduals or Alleluias. During a High or Solemn Mass, these chanted propers would be sung, but at Low Mass they are merely recited. A prominent feature—and main cue for the acolytes—is the use of the “Flectamus genua” prayer-action just before the additional collects, orations.


So let’s discuss the differences about serving an Ember Day Mass. It should be first noted that the following cues and other instructions do not apply to the Masses of Ember Friday, which are offered just like a normal Low Mass. So one less thing for the altar server to worry about!


For both Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays, the most important cue to know is which reading is the Epistle. This is the last reading before the Gospel and thus after the Epistle is read, the server needs to stand and switch the missal to the Gospel side of the altar. However, the acolyte does not want to stand too early (say after one of the Lessons), otherwise he may be waiting for quite a long time! Fortunately for the server, the cue for when the reading will be the Epistle is easy to spot.


On Ember Wednesdays, there is one Lesson before the Epistle, while on Ember Saturdays there are five Lessons preceding the Epistle. Each Lesson is prefaced by the celebrant saying from in front of the missal: “Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.” Then the priest reads the oration followed by a Lesson. Note well, that the priest never goes to the center of the altar before saying “Oremus,” etc. before each Lesson.


After the Lesson(s), a Gradual—or during the Pentecost Octave an Alleluia responsorial—will be said by the priest at the missal. On Ember Wednesdays, this will be followed by the Epistle, but on Ember Saturdays, by another oration, then a Lesson, a Gradual, and so forth.


After the last Lesson, and as usual in preparation for reading the Epistle, the celebrant finally goes to the center of the altar, kisses it, turns to the faithful and says: “Dominus vobiscum.” Then he returns to the missal to say the Collect after which he reads the Epistle. Then everything else follows as for serving Low Mass.


So to recap, the altar server will know when the Epistle is the next reading when the celebrant says “Dominus vobiscum” towards the faithful.


There are few other things the acolyte should know about serving a Mass on Ember Wednesdays and Ember Saturdays.


The first is the use on both Ember Days of the “Flectamus genua” prayer-action for the orations that come before each Lesson(s). Here is the order of what happens:


  1. Standing before the missal at the Epistle corner, the priest says “Oremus” (“Let us pray”) while turning and bowing to the altar cross. The acolyte also makes a simple (head) bow at this time.

  2. Facing the missal, the priest says “Flectamus genua” (“Let us kneel”) and then kneels for a short period of prayer.[2] The server—who is already kneeling as a form of posture, not of reverence—makes a moderate bow while the celebrant kneels.[3]

  3. The priest then says “Levate” (“Let us stand”) and rises. The server ceases to bow.[4]

  4. Then the priest says the oration which is concluded with the server responding “Amen” as usual.


Two other things that the server needs to take note of, is responding after the extra Lessons. The response is the same as for the Epistle, “Deo gratias” and the celebrant will usually indicate the end of each Lesson by putting his left hand on the altar. The exception for this rule will be for the last Lesson on Ember Saturdays when “Deo gratias” is not said at the end.


The reason for this omission is very interesting. The last Lesson on Ember Saturday is an extract from the book of the Prophet Daniel, namely from the Prayer of Azarias which recounts the incident of the three Hebrew youths, Sidrach, Misach and Abdenego, who were thrown in the furnace by King Nabuchodonosor of the Babylonians for refusing to worship his false god of gold. Instead of being engulfed by the flames, the three youth were accompanied by an angel and walking in the fire, sung a hymn of praise to God, the Benedictus or Song of the Three Holy Children in the Fiery Furnace.[5]


In the context of the Ember Saturday Mass, the concluding part of the Prayer of Azarias is said which ends with the phrase “et benedicebant Deum in fornace, dicentes:” (“and blessing God in the furnace, they said”), while the colon in the missal text indicates that the next proper, Hymnus—The Song of the Three Holy Children—is intended to be sung in High and Solemn Masses, but in Low Masses merely said. Thus why there is no ending response of “Deo gratias” after the Lesson from Daniel, or after the Benedictus, which was intended to be a chanted proper.


Fortunately, if the server listens closely, he will always know on every Ember Saturday when this reading is being started, for the first words said by the priest are: “Lectio Danielis Prophetae. In diebus illis: Angelus Domini…”. So not only can the name “Danielis” be picked out rather easily, but more importantly “Angelus Domini”. Just another reason why altar servers should pay attention!


To conclude this piece, below is a table that shows the order of orations, prayers, and chant propers that precede the Epistle on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays. [6]


Ember Wednesday
  1. Introit and Kyrie (both said from missal).

  2. Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”—“Amen” said by server as usual.

  3. Lesson—“Deo gratias” said by server as usual.

  4. Gradual (Alleluia during Pentecost Octave).

  5. Collect with usual “Dominus vobiscum.” (from center of altar) “Oremus” (from missal)—“Et cum spiritu tuo” and “Amen” said by server as usual.[7]

  6. Epistle.


Ember Saturday

It is noteworthy to mention that when the ceremonies of Ember Saturday were held as a vigil, the ordination rites took place between the lessons, hence the reason for the greater number of readings and chants.


  1. Introit and Kyrie (both said from missal).

  2. Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”—“Amen” said by server as usual.

  3. First Lesson—“Deo gratias” said by server as usual.

  4. Gradual (Alleluia during Pentecost Octave).

  5. Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”—“Amen” said by server as usual.

  6. Second Lesson—“Deo gratias” said by server as usual.

  7. Gradual (Alleluia during Pentecost Octave).

  8. Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”—“Amen” said by server as usual.

  9. Third Lesson—“Deo gratias” said by server as usual.

  10. Gradual (Alleluia during Pentecost Octave).

  11. Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”—“Amen” said by server as usual.

  12. Fourth Lesson—“Deo gratias” said by server as usual.

  13. Gradual (Alleluia during Pentecost Octave).

  14. Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”—“Amen” said by server as usual.

  15. Fifth Lesson from Prophet Daniel—No response given by server.

  16. Benedictus hymn said—No response given by server.

  17. Collect with usual “Dominus vobiscum.” (from center of altar) “Oremus” (from missal)—“Et cum spiritu tuo” and “Amen” said by server as usual.[7]

  18. Epistle.



1 In the missal texts, the Epistle readings from the Old Testament are entitled as Lectio (Lesson or “reading”) while those of the New Testament are called Epistolae (Epistle, meaning “letter” in Greek).


2 As of the 1962 Missale Romanum, the single-knee genuflection was actually replaced with kneeling momentarily on both knees. This kneel should also consist of a period of silent prayer and not merely an up-down motion. Cf. J.B. O’Connell in The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal, p 199, ff 95 and p 472, and Frederick McManus in Handbook for the New Rubrics (1961, Helicon Press), pp 116-118.


3 For more about the distinctions of making the reverences at Mass, see The General Principles of Ceremonies of the Roman Rite.


4 Prior to the 1960 code of rubrics for the Missale Romanum it was customary in some places to have the server say “Levate”, but now (per Rubricae Generales, n. 440) only the celebrant at Low and High Mass, or the deacon at Solemn Masses says this. Cf. J.B. O’Connell, p 357, ff 30, and McManus, p 116.


5 Read the full account in the Douay Rheims Bible here.


6 I would also recommend the altar server to review these texts in his daily missal prior to serving Mass to have a better idea of their order, as well as what they say.


7 If there is a commemoration, e.g., of Advent ferial, this is preceded with the usual “Oremus” and not “Flectamus genua”.

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